Today, we’ll focus on the First Battle of Saltville and its Civil War sites. Stay tuned next Friday for the Second Battle of Saltville sites and Salt Park.
On October 2, 1864, approximately 300 Confederates held the high ground around the Salt Capital of the Confederacy. In the mineral—mined, boiled, and readied in this southwest Virginia community—was a key part of preserving foods and maintain health within the Southern states. Federal strategists and officers recognized Saltville as a supply point worthy of destruction and sent several expeditions toward the mountain village at different points during the war. (In fact, part of the New Market Campaign involved trying to get to Saltville, Leadville, and the railroad.)
Recognizing the importance of the salt marshes and industry built around them, the Confederacy created an impressive network of fortifications on the high ground around the town. Topography aided in the defense since the salt marshes and town rested in a small valley, surrounded by hills with limited access into the valley and community.
In autumn 1864, 5,000 Union troops, including the 5th and 6th USCT cavalry, led by Brigadier General Stephen G. Burbridge headed for Saltville. When they arrived on October 2, they found 2,000 Confederate Home Guard and “regular” troops waiting in a line that stretched over two miles along the high ground.
The action is sometimes referred to as “the Battle of Cedar Branch”, taking its name from the location where Cedar Branch Creek meets the Holston River. Around noon, Federal troops charged downhill and battled for the ford. Driving the Confederates back, Federal troops crossed and battled their way into the local cemetery where close combat raged. The Confederates received reinforcements from other points on their lines, counter-attacked, and pushed the Union troops back to the fords and across the river. Around 5 p.m. the battle ended. Union casualties totaled about 290 while Confederate losses were about 160. General Burbridge retreated in the night, leaving his wounded behind.
The following day some of the Confederates commanded by Champ Ferguson and with General Felix H. Robertson’s knowledge murdered some of the Federal wounded left on the battlefield and some in the field hospital near Emory and Henry College. The incident is often referred to as the “Saltville Massacre.” Researchers are not sure how many wounded were murdered and accounts vary between a dozen to fifty victims.
Hearing the terrible reports, Generals Lee and Breckinridge discussed pressing charges against Robertson, but no formal action was taken by the Confederacy. After the war, Ferguson stood trial in Nashville, Tennessee, and was found guilty for multiple war crimes—including the Saltville killings. He was hanged on October 29, 1865 for these atrocities. General Robert E. Lee and General John C. Breckinridge discussed pressing charges during the war against Robertson.
Today, the high bluffs overlooking the river ford and the earthworks at this site can be visited. Elizabeth Cemetery, where significant fighting took place, is also a historic place to visit.
To reach these locations, ask at the museum for specific directions, follow the Civil War Trails signs, or use these directions and map:
Head east on Main Street, toward the river (away from the salt ponds). Turn right on Buckeye Street; you will be turning into a residential area with a narrow road. At the T, make a left and continue on Buckeye Street. Continue on Buckeye Street until you see the parking pull off, green space, and interpretive pavilion on the left. At the top of the bluff, you’ll overlook and see the river, Cedar Branch Creek, the cemetery, and battle area. Partway down the hill, there is a Confederate trench-line. The modern bridge across the river is at the approximate location of the 1860’s ford.
Return to your vehicle and return via Buckeye Street to Main Street. Make a right. In about a block, make a left at the entrance to Elizabeth Cemetery. Major fighting took place on this prominence.
Next week, we’ll continue to the second battlefield and the salt park…